Pigeon Post as a method of communication is likely as old as the ancient Persians from whom the art of training the birds probably came. The Mughals also have used them as their messengers. The Romans used pigeon messengers to aid their military over 2000 years ago. Frontinus said that Julius Caesar used pigeons as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks conveyed the names of the victors at the Olympic Games to their various cities by this means.
By the 12th century, messenger pigeons were used in Baghdad. Naval chaplain Henry Teonge (c. 1620–1690) describes in his diary a regular pigeon postal service being used by merchants between İskenderun and Aleppo in the Levant. Before the telegraph, this method of communication had a considerable vogue amongst stockbrokers and financiers.
The Dutch government established a civil and military system in Java and Sumatra early in the 19th century, the birds being obtained from Baghdad. In 1851, the German-born Paul Julius Reuter opened an office in the City of London which transmitted stock market quotations between London and Paris via the new Calais to Dover cable. Reuter had previously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels, a service that operated for a year until a gap in the telegraph link was closed. Details of the employment of pigeons during the siege of Paris in 1870-71 led to a revival in the training of pigeons for military purposes. Numerous societies were established for keeping pigeons of this class in all important European countries; and, in time, various governments established systems of communication for military purposes by pigeon post. After pigeon post between military fortresses had been thoroughly tested, attention was turned to its use for naval purposes, to send messages to ships in nearby waters. It was also used by news agencies and private individuals at various times. Governments in several countries established lofts of their own. Laws were passed making the destruction of such pigeons a serious offense; premiums to stimulate efficiency were offered to private societies, and rewards given for destruction of birds of prey. Before the advent of radio, pigeons were used by newspapers to report yacht races, and some yachts were actually fitted with lofts. During the establishment of formal pigeon post services, the registration of all birds was introduced. At the same time, in order to hinder the efficiency of the systems of foreign countries, difficulties were placed in the way of the importation of their birds for training, and in a few cases falcons were specially trained to interrupt the service war-time, the Germans having set the example by employing hawks against the Paris pigeons in 1870-71. No satisfactory method of protecting the weaker birds seems to have been developed, though the Chinese formerly provided their pigeons with whistles and bells to scare away birds of prey. However, as radio telegraphy and telephony were developed, the use of pigeons became limited to fortress warfare as early as in the 1910s. As an example, the British Admiralty discontinued its pigeon service in the early 20th century, although it had attained a remarkably high standard of efficiency. Nevertheless, large numbers of birds were still kept at the great inland fortresses of France, Germany and Russia at the outbreak of the First World War. During World War II, the United Kingdom used about 250,000 homing pigeons. The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor given to non-human animals, was awarded to 32 pigeons, including the United States Army Pigeon Service’s G.I. Joe and the Irish pigeon Paddy. The UK maintained the Air Ministry Pigeon Section during World War II and for a while thereafter. A Pigeon Policy Committee made decisions about the uses of pigeons in military contexts. The head of the section, Lea Rayner, reported in 1945 that pigeons could be trained to deliver small explosives or bioweapons to precise targets. The ideas were not taken up by the committee, and in 1948 the UK military stated that pigeons were of no further use. However, the UK security service MI5 was still concerned about the use of pigeons by enemy forces. Until 1950, they arranged for 100 birds to be maintained by a civilian pigeon fancier in order to prepare countermeasures. The Swiss army disbanded its Pigeon section in 1996. In Malta the British Services had the Malta Signals Coy of which Carrier Pigeon Loft Unit No 126, Carrier Pigeon Loft Unit No 131, Carrier Pigeon Loft Unit No 132, Carrier Pigeon Loft Unit No 282 formed part. Some lofts were kept on the roof of Auberge de Castille in Valletta. The lofts were pulled down in the early fifties. In modern days, rafting photographers still use pigeons as a sneakernet to transport digital photos on flash media from the camera to the tour operator. The GCHQ code-breakers were set an intriguing challenge following the discovery of a carrier pigeon skeleton by David Martin in the chimney of his house in Bletchingley, Surrey in November 2012. The message – hand-written on a small sheet of paper headed “Pigeon Service” – was found in a small red canister still attached to the pigeon’s leg bone. Unfortunately, much of the vital information that would indicate the context of the message is missing. It is undated, and the meaning of the destination – given as “X02” – is unknown. Similarly, while the sender’s signature appears to say “Sjt W Stot”, nothing is known of this individual or their unit. During the war, the methods used to encode messages naturally needed to be as secure as possible and various methods were used. The senders would often have specialist codebooks in which each code group of four or five letters had a meaning relevant to a specific operation, allowing much information to be sent in a short message. For added security, the code groups could then themselves be encrypted using, for example, a one-time pad. The message found at Bletchingley had 27 five-letter code groups, and the GCHQ experts believe its contents are consistent with this method. This means that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, it will remain impossible to decrypt.
Some 250,000 pigeons were seconded during the Second World War. They were used by all arms of the services as well as the Special Operations Executive (SOE). They carried a wide variety of messages, flying the gauntlet of enemy hawk patrols and soldiers taking potshots at them to bring vital information back to Britain from mainland Europe. Each pigeon in service was given an identity number. Two such numbers, NURP.40.TW.194 and NURP.37.OK.76, have been identified on the Bletchingley message. Either of these could be the identity of the pigeon in the chimney. The Curator of the Pigeon Museum at Bletchley Park is trying to trace these numbers, and if they are identified and their wartime service established, it could help to decode the message, as could identifying “Sjt W Stot” and “X02”. Although it is disappointing that we cannot yet read the message brought back by a brave carrier pigeon, it is a tribute to the skills of the wartime code-makers that, despite working under severe pressure, they devised a code that was undecipherable both then and now.